July 13, 2020

Sex offender registry changes urged

AUGUSTA – Lawmakers on a legislative panel are recommending that the state’s current sex offender registry be changed to reflect the risk offenders pose to the public, and that police and prosecutors be more aggressive in going after those offenders who are not registering.

“What we are saying is we want some risk assessments put on these people,” said Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windam, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. “Right now, we can’t say who is a risk to society and who is not.”

The panel has been reviewing the registry since last spring when two offenders on the list were tracked down and killed at their homes. During its last meeting Tuesday before a new Legislature is elected on Nov. 7 the committee discussed the various recommendations that will be passed on to the incoming lawmakers.

Under current law, anyone convicted of a sex crime since 1982 is required to register their whereabouts with the state. The registry includes basic information such as the offender’s name, address and type of crime committed, but does not present details or circumstances of the crime.

The problem, according to committee members, is that a person convicted of consensual sex as a teen can get listed the same as a pedophile.

Rep. Pat Blanchette, D-Bangor, said she is now haunted by her vote to create a registry that does not differentiate among offenses. As she spoke, Blanchette pointed in the audience to Shirley Turner, the mother of convicted sex offender William Elliott, who was shot and killed last Easter Sunday at his home in Corinth.

State police investigators determined that Stephen Marshall of Nova Scotia accessed the state sex offender registry Web site before he came to Maine and killed Elliott and Joseph Gray of Milo. Elliot was on the registry for having sex with his underage girlfriend when he was 20.

“Part of the action I took in the 122nd [Legislature] in voting for this rollback has caused a young man, whose mother is sitting in this room, to be dead,” Blanchette said. “That’s a hell of a feeling I have to live with, day in and day out.”

Blanchette pledged that if re-elected she will sponsor legislation to make significant changes to the law, including removing individuals convicted of consensual sex acts between teens.

Public Safety Commissioner Michael Cantara provided several proposed changes to current law from a working group he convened this summer. He said the broad based group had reached a consensus on a package of changes that would improve the law.

“The categorization of sex offenders should not depend solely on the category of crime for which a person is convicted,” he said, “but on a risk assessment, that assesses the risk for recidivism, public safety, victim safety and re-integration into the community.”

Cantara said the group also agreed the state should seek to conform its Web site and registry rules to the new federal law, although he acknowledged the rules implementing the new law have yet to be issued. That brought a sharp retort from Blanchette, who did not want to wait for federal officials to move before taking action in Maine.

“What I want to do is to protect Maine people,” she said. “We need to stop worrying about Big Daddy in Washington.”

Cantara also said that as of Tuesday morning, 192 individuals had been identified as required to register with police but have not yet. That provoked concern among lawmakers over what efforts are being made to find those individuals and arrest and prosecute them for not registering.

“We already have a law, we don’t need another law that tells them they have to register,” said Rep. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick. “We need enforcement of the law we have.”

The committee supported a recommendation to send a letter to law enforcement agencies and the eight district attorneys asking that they place a higher priority on enforcing the registry law. Cantara said there are resources to enforce the law and that police agencies and prosecutors do place a high priority on getting offenders to register.

The panel also discussed a resolve passed earlier this year directing the Department of Corrections to develop a new procedure and panel for handling sex offender cases that could lead to sexual predators being locked away for life.

The “Forensic Board” as it is described in the legislation would be composed of a group of psychiatric experts in the field of sex offenders who would use the latest assessment tools to determine the danger a person might pose to the community. If the board decided the person is a danger, that individual could be committed to a mental health facility until the board believes he no longer poses a risk to society.

The measure is controversial because the assessment tools are not precise and there are concerns about continuing to jail someone who has completed his sentence even when he is still considered a danger to society.

Diamond believes several bills will be introduced in the new Legislature that will deal with the proposed forensic board and the sex offender registry, including those ideas considered by the committee.

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